Can Positive Thinking Yield Rx-Worthy Benefits?

A new study on the placebo effect matched mind against body, with surprising results.

The mind is a powerful muscle, but can it really make patients feel better?

In a small study, researchers found that patients who took placebos experienced symptom relief even though they knew the pills they were given contained no actual medication. Their findings, published December 22 online in the journal PLoS ONE, suggest that physicians may not need to resort to trickery for patients to benefit from placebos.

In the “Placebos Without Deception” trial, 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were given either fake pills, which were clearly labeled “placebo,” or no treatment. The trial population consisted mainly of women with an average age of 47. The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Patients in the placebo group were told the medication was “like sugar pills,” which “have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” They sat in 15-minute counseling sessions with health care providers, who explained the potential impact of positive thinking on physical health.

After 3 weeks of treatment, 59% of patients who took dummy pills reported adequate symptom relief, compared with 35% in the no-treatment control group. The placebo group also reported improvements in symptom severity and quality of life.

The improvements are comparable to the effects of IBS medications, according to lead author Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He believes the simple act of taking pills may create a conditioned response—which explains why patients felt better despite knowing the pills were fake.

Because the study focused only on short term improvements and the somewhat subjective symptoms of IBS, Dr. Kaptchuk said more research is needed to determine whether “open-label” placebos are an effective treatment. “Further research is warranted in IBS, and perhaps other conditions, to elucidate whether physicians can benefit patients using placebos consistent with informed consent,” he concluded.

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • The Best of 2010 in Pharmacy Times
  • Survey Reveals Top 10 Issues Facing Pharmacists